Shanghai again, together

We land at Terminal 2 some eleven years since our last shared departure. In between Shanghai has been a touch point and frequent destination, but only for myself.

Shanghai is a city of change, where the list of bars and restaurants that have closed is daunting. Most of the places we knew in two thousand seven and eight are gone. Most of the places that opened after we left have likewise disappeared. The subway has blossomed, from four incomplete lines to more than a dozen. Entire entertainment districts have grown, become popular, and then been closed by the government. Apartments have gotten more expensive but also more numerous, and there are new cool neighborhoods far beyond what was our circle of frequency.

I have been lucky, taking in these changes over the course of the intervening decade, on work trips that lasted days and weeks. Since two thousand eight I’ve been paid for probably four months of time in Shanghai, though none since 2016. There are still changes that surprise me, every time I land. Taking them all in at once is daunting, and I watch Tara wander, eyes wide with uncertainty. Is this the corner we walked to so frequently? Is this our grocery store? Which way did we go to get from one apartment to the other, in those early days?

There are moments of joy too, in this adventure. The stalls attached to Zhongshan Park station, which had always been a home of odds and ends, now feature local designers, and better food. The connecting Carrefour features the same broad array of goods but under better lighting and with a cleaner sense of organization. The old apartment building is still standing, and the convenience stores nearby are far better than the old Kwik. We eat dumplings and meat pancakes for $3, and wander the neighborhood in the morning heat. Zhongshan Park itself is pretty, and filled with dancers. Of the Faithless concert that brought us there together for the first time, well, we have memories.

On Yueyang Lu we wander beneath the green leaves of Shanghai July, happy to see how much good the intervening decade has done for the foliage. These streets have always been a special part of Shanghai, a gift of foresight that keeps out the worst of the summer heat. Along Zhaojiabang Lu and throughout much of the city, efforts to spread the feeling of the French Concession’s tree-lined roads have paid off. “The trees are so big now,” we remark to each other again and again. So often, in this greenest season, it’s impossible to see tall landmarks scant blocks away, not just in our old neighborhoods but all over the city.

Tree growth more than anything is the lingering lesson of these ten years. Buildings have gone up and become accepted. Businesses have come and gone. People too. Subways have been built so far out that the borders of the city are difficult to determine. All these efforts, though, are overshadowed by how green the city has become, at least in the summer. As we leave, walking up the stairway to our plane from the Pudong tarmac, we know the trees are what we will remember from this visit in twenty nineteen.

A decade is a long time to a person, or to a couple. A decade is a long time for our careers. Eleven years ago we knew so little of what we would become, and where that would take us. And we did not appreciate enough the small saplings being placed all over Shanghai.

A decade, it turns out, is a long time for the small trees planted along Zhaojiabang. Long enough to grow tall and dense, to separate one side of the street from the other, and to quiet the noise and improve the air. Long enough to make the city a better place.

20 hours

When I was young it was hard for me to understand why my father and his best friends lived in separate towns. They had gone to high school together, moved apart for university, and stayed. Individually the decisions made sense, but as a group, for the friendships, the decisions made quality time rarer, made being a part of the day to day impossible. They still worked to maintain friendships, traveling for events or birthdays, making the long distance phone calls that used to cost money.

I no longer am surprised by these decisions. I haven’t lived in the same town as my best friend since college, and haven’t lived even in regional proximity with most of my good friends since the location where we became friends, be it college, Tokyo, Shanghai, or San Francisco. In many ways this has forced me to make new friends, people who are now in that category of “too far away to be daily contacts but still remain my favorite people”. It’s a strange category but one I keep adding to. Which leads me to the topic, and my new focus on short chunks of time.

In relationships separated by long distances, everything becomes discrete, a single visit, a single evening, a cup of coffee. In the best cases we get a day and a half together, one night and the following day. Call it twenty hours tops, to both remember the old times and share current challenges, to have longer conversations about serious topics and laugh at common jokes. These opportunities are short, but real, repeatable with most of my circle every calendar year. My abilities here are a gift of work travel and the result of personal dedication, because I know now that regular contact will not happen if not prioritized. The world is too big and our lives too full to allow accidental gifts like this evening in Las Vegas to cover all our desires. And so my most important friendships are built in chunks of hours, and require a kind of focus, a dedication, that has improved my life. Knowing that our time together is rare we all prioritize the moment, and are willing to be unavailable elsewhere to make sure the conversation is our focus and our thoughts are not overwhelmed by minor obligations, background stress.

The results of this mutual focus is incredible, and something I have grown to appreciate over time. At first I was let down to realize that, like my father, I’d created a life where my favorite people were rare guests rather than regular members. Lately though I understand that the depth of commitment required to sustain friendships across years and borders has resulted in my best sounding boards, my most true conversations. In twenty hours there is little time for superficial, and we quickly jump to career questions, business challenges, and family. The questions and ideas posed to me in these brief meetings over coffee in New York or drinks in Los Angeles drive my mind for months, often until the next meeting with a different member of my ever-expanding circle.

And expand this circle I do, with new friends gathered at each stop, in each new city. The best moments, then, are of realizing how large the circle has grown, how many of these distant deep friendships there are, and how much they sustain me and enable whatever is next. As expected Hong Kong is providing the next home base for this growth, for new friendships to blossom into deep ones and old acquaintances to swing through. In just a few short months in the city we’ve hosted friends from Singapore and San Francisco and seen family from both sides, which are good indicators of the new life’s pace. Writing this from Los Angeles, while my best friend is briefly at a meeting, is another indicator of my own circles and how they will be maintained despite the move abroad. Through twenty years of friendship we’ve continued to find time together, whether we live at opposite ends of the state or across the Pacific.

Here then, if you’re reading this, is to the next time we’re in the same place for an hour or twenty, and how those moments will not just sustain friendship but improve it. The past two decades are proof that this method works for me, just as the past four decades have proved it to for my father, who is this weekend en route to his high school friend’s daughter’s baby shower. May we all be in our own ways so lucky.

Ease of operation

Tara looking out at the harbor one evening

We land in Hong Kong with nine checked bags, which is strangely the most efficient method of transporting the sum of our San Francisco years. Waiting for them I remember other moves, and the challenges of each. Where has the boy gone who left Tokyo with two suitcases, who did not know how to get a taxi or any RMB on landing in Shanghai? What of the boy who left Shanghai with those same two suitcases and two shipped boxes, put on 3 month China Post slow boats destined for Houston? And most of all, what does this mean for the man who has disembarked at this same gate a dozen times over the last two years, carrying a single duffel?

They are all here, these previous selves, well aware of the way we pack when trying to take everything we own on short notice. They are here, in an airport we know so well, watching me maneuver this very full cart down the slight ramp to the taxi stand. They are voices in my head asking how these bags will ever go in a small Hong Kong taxi trunk.

Moving is a test. We test our ability to let go in a way that is painful and educational. We have said goodbye to our friends, to our neighborhood, to our house, to our routines, and to our stuff. Bicycles have been moved, sold, and given away. Art, furniture, kitchen gear and more has been handed off to people who will be able to enjoy them without transporting them more than a few miles. Soon we will part with the car, the bed, and finally the apartment that we’ve loved for the past four years. Moving is an experience filled with sadness, and with uncertainty. By letting go of all these things we are able to make space for new ones, whether that means new apartments or new shoes. And by letting go of our country and our city, at least for now, we are able to discover.

In Hong Kong in early October the weather is beautiful. At seven am, as we struggle with the overloaded carts, it’s a balmy twenty eight C, the humidity not too high. Wearing pants still from the airplane we are already slightly sweaty but able to manage. And we are able to discover how our new home operates.

The fourth vehicle in the taxi queue is a van, and the driver enthusiastically helps us cram all our bags in, guitar and skateboard included. The process, which I’d been dreading since the night before, takes five minutes and then we’re on the road, both in the same car, on our way to the hotel. Having used two separate Lyft rides to get to SFO sharing the taxi is a treat. En route we realize, were we going the other way, Hong Kong to SFO, we could have checked all these bags at Central and ridden the train out to HKG with only our carry ons. From moment one Hong Kong impresses with functionality. All nine checked bags go on a cart at the hotel and are whisked away to a storage room. Moving, even with more stuff than we could carry, isn’t that bad. Two hours after landing we go for a swim in a pool overlooking the harbor, and begin to relax.

As an asthmatic one of the other challenges of moving is procuring medicine. In the US and in Japan inhalers have required a complicated dance of doctors and pharmacies. In China for so long they were available over the counter, only becoming prescription in two thousand seven. So it is with some slight trepidation that I set out to find one on our second day in Hong Kong.

I purchase one after five minutes of looking for a pharmacy in Mongkok, for $93 HKD, or $12 USD. In SF they have cost me $25 for the past two years, with good insurance. No one is quite sure how much extra the insurance company has to pay, on top of my $25. For the second time in two days I’m reminded of why we leave, why we move and challenge ourselves. Without those painful goodbyes, without the long days of packing and worrying, we would never have learned how easy moving can be, and how cheap medication can come.

These examples are mundane, and yet they’re a reminder that what seems daunting isn’t always so, and that taking risks is one way of discovering new joy.

Here then is to the next few months, which will be full of new neighborhoods and first time discoveries. They come at a high cost, one we’ve paid over years, and will bring benefits we have not yet learned to expect.

Seeing the future

We are rarely entirely new beings. Instead we are an echo of our parents and the examples set before us. We grow and change and age in patterns that seem unique individually but are quite in line with our species globally. We are children and then adults of a particular history, of a place and time.

I am reminded of this in the breakfast buffet of the Pullman hotel one morning in Shanghai in two thousand fifteen. A man walks past me in shorts and a black T-shirt, carrying a notebook and pen. He has a shaved head, and is perhaps forty five. I am thirty five, here for work, and still too concerned about appearances to wear T-shirts. The man wanders away though the buffet and I can barely avoid staring.

It’s rare to see one’s future self walk by so close.

He looks like I look. More, he looks like I will look, if I am still attending buffet breakfasts in Chinese hotels in ten years. The feeling of witnessing someone in the same place, with the same styles, mannerisms, and accouterment, is disconcerting. The first moments are of shock, an odd tickle on the back of the neck. After that comes a humbleness, the awareness of one’s lack of individuality. And finally, when I am standing in the elevator returning to my room, a desire to make contact, to have said something witty by way of introduction. A wish to have met myself, however strangely.

***

Three years later, at a breakfast in Dongguan, in black T-shirt with notebook, I have grown more comfortable. I no longer worry about the supplier I am going to meet in an hour. I have been swimming early in the morning, and will write a letter to a distant friend over coffee. I am more collected, more comfortable, and slightly older. My head is recently shaved, by a young man in a Shenzhen barber shop. If I encountered that future self again the recognition, I believe, would be mutual, and not just for the clothing, bald head, and habit of writing at breakfast, which I’ve possessed for years.

There is a certain comfort at being in China, at being at home on the road, that I’ve improved on these past three years. After so many trips full of urgent mornings rushing through breakfast to make the pick up schedule, after so many years of worry and email before bed, I feel more able to schedule rigorously and still breathe. It’s a skill I’ve always had but not always believed in, which led to unnecessary stress.

Since my injury in 2014 I am focused enough to rise early, to swim or exercise, and to eat little breakfast. I am able to relax enough to write at the breakfast table afterwards, and pack quickly for the scheduled departure. I am able to eat less at lunch and dinner, to work out in the evenings if that is the only option, and to make time for video calls with family.

I am older, and still on the road. Not yet forty five, but no longer thirty five. And on mornings like this one I wonder about that man in the Pullman in Shanghai. Is he still on the road as well, still meeting business partners and enjoying spartan hotel mornings?

Perhaps one day I’ll know.

Heat rising

A friend of ours is fond of observing patterns in the movements of people. One of his favorite targets is migrations around the United States. For the most part domestic migration in the US is from cold places to warmer places, specifically from the north east and upper midwest to the south west and south east. These are not exactly new trends, nor is he the first to note them, but repetition does influence minds.

The trend I watch most closely, living inside of it as we do, is that of California as wealth pump, bringing in people, increasing their net worth, and then seeing them depart for cheaper housing, smaller towns, lower property taxes, and proximity to family. Unlike the north east, most people leaving California are not seeking better weather. As with my friend and his observations, California’s trend has been going on long before I became aware of it. We discuss them together, on occasion, because they have a similar side effect: this migration is changing the cost and tenor of the destinations. California does not just export wealth to Denver, it exports beliefs. New York and Michigan do likewise to South Carolina and Arizona. In an era where the self-sorting of Americans by political beliefs has been well explored, this is a counter tale of remixing.

And so, arriving in Austin for a wedding, I am glad to find the cranes sprouting over downtown. I am excited to see balconies on the apartment towers going up, and a dense neighborhood of bars at their feet. Bands play and cars, while present, are forced to stop for crowds of pedestrians, cycle taxis, and small electric vehicles. Near by a new hotel rises with more music in its lobby and a stylish walkway across the street to a section of creek. We wander late into the night and are never alone. So much of the city is outside and celebrating at the end of the school year, before summer truly begins. As the heat dies around nine pm, so too does the city come alive. It’s a rare sensation for those of us accustomed to San Francisco’s five pm fog and evening hoodies.

Austin still sprawls, and we spend much of our weekend in neighborhoods that are actually towns, places with names like Driftwood, Pflugerville, and Dripping. These places are accessible only by car and feature large houses and good schools. In many ways, Texas is still Texas.

Yet we are there for the wedding of someone born in Colorado, and visit friends who have moved from San Francisco and work in tech, on transit, and with future startup founders. These are people who want to bike to work or who work from home, and who care about density, sustainability, and public schools. The trends, at least this weekend, feel real. Walking past construction sites for future residential towers and seeing others just opened I am glad to see Austin rising in the heat in support.